How to Stay Comfortable at Home While Reducing Energy Costs and Saving Money
Most of us strive to reduce unnecessary expenses and lower our utility bills, but sometimes it seems like we need to trade off comfort for lower costs. Robert W. Sylvester, a retired engineer, applied many energy-reduction measures to his home and found that such trade-offs are either minimal or unnecessary.
Bob Sylvester developed the following comments about his experience with easy ways to reduce energy use and costs. Many of these actions require no additional expenditures. Perhaps some of this experience will be useful to you. Consider the specific needs of your household before acting on these ideas. If you feel that you cannot perform these actions yourself, please consult a qualified expert.
Experience Which May Be Useful to Citizens of Chester County, PA to Reduce Energy Costs©
By Guest Author Robert W. Sylvester
Reducing Home Heating Costs
Open blinds and curtains on the sunny side of the house during the day. Close all blinds and curtains during winter nights. The sun will heat our house and windows lose heat at night. My friend's dog loves to sit in the sun during winter. I do too! And more natural light makes the house so much more cheerful. My windows are designed to limit UV rays which can bleach furnishings.1
Lower the thermostat setting. The World Health Organization identifies 65 degrees Fahrenheit as sufficiently warm for healthy adults and children. Consult your physician if infants, invalids or the elderly live with you.
Find and fix the sources of drafts. These can include unsealed basement and attic access doors, damaged seals on outside doors, leaky windows, open dampers in unused chimneys, etc.
- This can be a complicated process and you may want to hire contractors to find the leaks and repair them. Moisture management can be an issue. But my house is so much more comfortable and I use quite a bit less fuel since I sealed it.
- Fire places, fired water heaters, dryers, furnaces, stoves and fireplaces must have an outside source of air to support safe combustion. Do not block these! A certified heating and ventilation contractor may be able to install safe flues to this equipment which will eliminate these sources of drafts. Unused fireplaces should be cleaned before permanently sealing. I have a carbon monoxide detector on each floor with a fired appliance.
- I found and corrected air leaks into the attic from the house so that now snow on my roof melts very evenly. I sealed the attic door with foam strips and then built an insulated box out of a fire resistant foam plastic and fiber glass to place over the door. I built a similar box to seal above the whole house fan. I found stained fiber glass insulation in the attic that showed me where air leaked from occupied levels and sealed these holes. And I replaced old vented recessed lights with new sealed lights rated for insulation contact.
- I found a lot of air leakage around 30 year-old double hung windows. I could feel drafts during cold weather and also confirmed the leaks with an infrared thermometer that I bought at an auto parts store. I carefully examined the main seals on the window and found that I could repair the most important ones with two strips of elastomer which costs about $2 per window.
- I used the infrared thermometer to find several cold spots in the ceiling of the uppermost floor and repaired poorly installed insulation above these locations.
- To determine what the improved sealing was worth, I accurately measured how much the house cooled down overnight with no heat on when the outside temperature was in the 30s. The temperature loss was reduced 40%.
- A home energy audit including a blower door test can identify the potential to further reduce home energy consumption by adding insulation to recommended levels, identifying cold spots and sealing more leaks.
Set back the thermostat when everyone is in bed or the house is empty. I set mine to 61 an hour before leaving or going to bed. See below if your heat is from a heat pump.
- We have found a set back cycle which saves us a lot of money and leaves us both pretty happy. We close off the family room and kitchen from the rest of the house with a curtain and use vented gas logs to maintain a cozy temperature in these rooms. We turn the logs off before we go to bed. We preheat the bed with an electric blanket. The rest of the house is typically around 60 most of the day with the thermostat set warm enough to keep pipes from freezing. In cold weather we heat the entire house to 65 during the morning, then turn the logs back on and the thermostat down. We use filament bulbs in the bathroom to warm that room only when we shower.
- When we are out, we only heat the house to keep pipes from freezing. When we get home, we leave on our coats, turn on the logs and have a hot cup of tea while the family room warms up.
Insulate pipes which freeze during very cold weather. Outdoor spigots should be drained. Even though I have insulated the pipes, I raise the thermostat set point during very cold nights, below 20 degrees, to protect the pipes.
Basements should be insulated. They may be insulated at the walls â€“ new homes often are insulated outside the walls. Or the basement ceiling may be insulated. I've insulated the forced air ductwork, the upper basement walls and above the crawl space in one portion of the house. I also found the garage to be much warmer after I repaired the weather seal on the garage door.
If your heat is forced air, then:
- Open and partially close dampers to get heat into the rooms which need it most. In a multi-story home, this likely means opening the dampers to the downstairs room furthest from the furnace all of the way and partially closing dampers upstairs, especially those directly above the furnace. I'm reluctant to totally close the dampers in more than one room because the air flow might be reduced too far.
- Replace furnace air filters as recommended, usually at the start of winter and 90 days later.
- If your furnace uses fuel oil, consider how you might order at least 100 gallons at a time. I am charged more per gallon for smaller orders.
- My family room was cold for years. It was the lowest occupied room and had three exterior walls. I insulated it better but realized the forced air was still much cooler than at the furnace. I found that the furnace fan speed could be increased and this helped quite a bit. But the final solution was to add the gas logs and curtain to keep the heat in the lower portion of the house.
If your heat is hot water radiators, then:
- Bleed air from any radiators which will not heat.
- Open water valves all of the way to the coldest rooms and partially close valves to overheated rooms.
- If a room overheats, do not open a window. Instead, adjust the thermostat or valves.
If you use an air supplied heat pump, do not set back the thermostat unless the control system can raise the temperature without using auxiliary heat. Most can not. Consult the owner's manual if you use a ground water supplied heat pump. I have my choice of oil heat, a heat pump, and the gas logs. I found that the heat pump always uses 200 watts of electricity to power a lubricant heater throughout the winter. Now I use the heat pump rarely and disconnect the power supply at the circuit breaker, saving $90/year of electricity used by the lubricant heater. My owner's manual says that I should not run the heat pump without waiting several hours after restarting power to allow the lubricant to come to temperature. If you depend on a heat pump, consider setting if to "off", not "heat" in the months when it is not needed.
Reducing Energy Usage by Appliances and Lighting
- Use cold water detergent and wash only at the coldest washing machine settings. I use the prewash cycle with clothes that I want to sanitize.
- Use a dish washer if you have one and use the energy saver option. One friend estimated savings of $10/month.
- Air dry clothes on a clothes rack (best in winter) or clothes line.
- Some people don't want to take the time to hang clothes or don't like the texture of line dried towels. But think of how the dryer damages clothes, producing all of that lint.
- A high efficiency washer may pay for itself by saving drying costs but line drying will always be cheaper.
- If you continue to dry clothes in the dryer, dry them on the low setting to use less energy and do less damage. Clean the lint filter with every load and examine the dryer discharge hose for lint buildup twice a year. Clean any lint buildup or replace the discharge hose to reduce the risk of fire. I believe, but can not prove that the dryer will use less energy if you add the slowest-to-dry clothes (towels, heavy socks) first to fill the dryer 1/3 to 2/3 full, dry them for a few minutes, and then add the remaining faster to dry clothes.
- If you use a clothes dryer, avoid over-drying. Check the clothes at least once least once near the end of the cycle and add a little more time if necessary.
- If your water heater is over 15 years old, consider replacing it with a high energy efficiency unit and avoid an emergency visit to fix a leak from the water heater. The really well insulated water heaters use foam instead of fiber glass in the older heater.
- Turn off appliances which generate heat when not in use. This includes televisions, computers, electronic games and lights. I found that my house was using 1200 watts which I was unaware of. I found this by looking at the rate which the dial on the electric meter turned. It turned two revolutions a minute when I thought nothing was on! I subsequently lowered this to 300 watts, 0.5 revolutions per minute, by shutting off when not in use a computer that would not hibernate, unplugging heating tape, turning off unused lights and replacing many filament light bulbs with compact fluorescent lights. Total savings from this and other changes in electricity use are worth more than $600 per year at my current electricity rates.
- Provide two levels of lighting in the kitchen and other work areas. One for general lighting and more intense light for reading, sewing or similar work.
- Use timers to turn off outdoor lights. Mine turn off at midnight.,/
- In most applications, I use compact fluorescent light bulbs instead of filament bulbs. The exception which I make is for bulbs which might be easily broken, like floor lamps, and to provide space heat in the bath during the winter.
- Question the cost effectiveness of operating a second, older refrigerator. If you need a second refrigerator year round, get a new one. I've used a device call a "kill-a-watt", available for $30, to measure the electricity consumption by 110 volt appliances and to determine how much energy an appliance consumes.
- Look for the Energy Star label when you buy new appliances.
Saving Fuel Costs When Driving
The best way to reduce your gasoline bill this month is to find a way to drive less. Options which I have used include car pooling, riding the bus from a park and ride, working from home one day a week, and combining trips. I was sufficiently successful at doing this that I could not justify buying a new, fuel efficient car.
Change the way that you drive to get better fuel economy.
- I've been able to increase my fuel economy by six miles per gallon. I keep track of the miles per gallon to measure progress. What I learned to do was not to hurry. When I hurry, I have to brake more frequently and this requires more gasoline. I drive near the speed limit and, unless I'm holding up traffic, I coast into stops. My savings of six miles per gallon are the equivalent of getting gas for fifty cents per gallon less.
- I cleaned out the vehicle to minimize weight.
- I avoid rush hour and other stop-and-go traffic. This driving really reduces fuel economy. When forced to drive in traffic, I leave a gap in front of me for safety and economy and do not worry if someone merges in.
- I minimize idling. Few modern vehicles require warm up. I get everyone into the car and buckled up before starting.
- I avoid "hunting" for a parking spot. Low speed driving in a parking lot is particularly inefficient.
- My wife and I drive the most efficient vehicle for the longer trips.
- I park at a central location in a shopping center and walk rather than move the car from store to store.
- Consider fuel efficiency when you buy your next vehicle.
- Impatient drivers often want to get around me. I try to make this easy for them, for example by driving in the right lane much of the time.
Common Problems not Always Discussed in Energy Guides
- Excess humidity in a house causes mold. When I use the clothes dryers, I vent it outside. I run ventilation fans when cooking and showering. I correct the source of damp spots and have learned to avoid conditions which lead to condensation on windows.2
- Every year home heating systems cause fires or burns. Common problems include worn insulation on wires, toddlers who touch space heaters, flammable materials like curtains too close to fires, and similar issues.
- Make sure that your fire detectors work and change any batteries twice a year. If you use a kerosene or wood stove, make sure that you have a carbon monoxide monitor in the same room and if it alarms, stop the stove, open a window and get the stove maintained.
- Open fire places look pretty but are very inefficient because of drafts resulting from the chimney.
Measures of Success
- Snow melts on my roof evenly and more slowly than on the neighbors' roofs.
- My fuel economy driving in town is above 85% of my fuel economy on interstates.3
- My home electricity use is less than 10,000 kilowatt hours during the last 12 months, down from 16,000 in 2006.4
About the Author
Bob is an engineer who retired in 2010 after a career which included numerous contributions to energy efficiency and reduced environmental footprint. He has helped to design new chemical plants to reduce energy consumption and has helped to find opportunities to reduce the energy consumption of many existing plants. Bob has spoken about energy efficiency to community groups, engineering classes and professional societies and has published in the magazine, Chemical Engineering Progress. Every home and household is different. You must judge the applicability of these ideas to you and you should consider using a certified contractor to make home improvements.
1 Thermal draperies can be used to reduce heat transfer. Window films that reduce UV radiation are also available.
2 Energy-efficient clothes washers conserve energy through more complete water removal during the spin cycle.
3 Some drivers shut off their gasoline engine when stopped for a long red light signal.
4 Individual experiences with energy conservation will vary.